Writing Excuses 8.39: Dystopian Fiction with Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest stopped by for an evening during the Out Of Excuses Workshop and Retreat this summer, so of course we took the opportunity to drag her into the basement and grill her relentlessly about dystopian fiction, in front of witnesses.

(Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how it happened…)

After the requisite introductions, we give you a working definition of dystopian fiction, and why it’s popular. Cherie and Dan tell us about their dystopias, and then we dig into talking about how to build them well.

Steelheart Tweeting Thingy: Per the episode intro from Howard, this Monday, September 30th we’ll be giving away Steelheart audiobooks, courtesy of our sponsor Audible.com, to some randomly-selected people who tweet their epic weakness and the name of the book. Here’s the format:

“My epic weakness is {WEAKNESS} and the chance to win the STEELHEART audiobook from @WritingExcuses”

Obviously you’ll want to replace {WEAKNESS} with something clever. You have fifty-two characters to play with. Also, you should follow @WritingExcuses on Twitter so we can Direct Message you if you happen to be one of the lucky winners. We’ll announce the winners on Tuesday.


Base a dystopia on breakfast cereal…

Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest, narrated by Kate Reading.

16 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.39: Dystopian Fiction with Cherie Priest”

  1. A while ago I read Divergent by Veronica Roth and Partials by Dan within a 3 or 4 day stretch. Both of the stories were very good, but overall I enjoyed Partials a lot more simply because of the worldbuilding. Everything that Dan did in setting up the world in Partials made sense, and as I read more there was never anything that knocked me out of the story.

    While reading Divergent I was puzzled by the way that the world was set up, and the more that I thought about it the more that everything in the world fell apart, and it ruined most of the story for me.

    Part of this is because I have a B.A. in psychology and I’ve studied tendencies of personality – specifically about the heritability of overall traits – which completely destroyed one of the major plot points of the first book. It also came across to me that the plot point which ruined the first book for me was going to be the major premise for the rest of the series, so I haven’t bothered with the second book.

  2. Good episode. I’m glad you decided to talk about Dystopian fiction because I’ve recently thought of two different Dystopian novellas i want to write and you brought up some good points that helped me think of some things to add to them.

    Also, I’m too busy with schoolwork (Creative Writing degree) right now, but I plan on picking up Steelheart this coming winter break. So good job Brandon Sanderson you’ve just made a sale, the rest of you slackers need to pick it up (only kidding I’m sure you’re all working hard).

  3. Just in case someone is looking for a transcript of the tweeting instructions almost in time for the contest, here it is! Read all about it, and tweet your way to a free copy of Steelheart!

    [Howard] Howard here. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is out! It’s about a young man who is trying to assassinate the epic Emperor of Chicago. I loved it, and I think you will too. Audible.com has generously given Brandon several copies to give away, but as tyrannical epics ourselves, Jordo, Mary, Dan, and I think you should suffer for them. Confess your epic weakness to us and to the world on Twitter. Your tweet should read something like this, “My epic weakness is room-temperature chicken salad and the chance to win the Steelheart audiobook from @writingexcuses.” Do this on Monday. Tuesday we’ll pick a winner and use their epic weakness to kill them. Mwahaha… I’m just kidding. We’ll use their twitter handle to send them a direct message with instructions on how to pick up their audiobook. If you’d like a template from which to cut and paste the non-chicken salad parts of your tweet, check the liner notes for this episode at writingexcuses.com. If you don’t tweet or feel unsafe confessing your epic weakness for some reason, you can also visit audible.com/excuse, start a trial membership, and download Steelheart for free. Note: my weakness is not room-temperature chicken salad, so don’t try anything. Now here is this week’s episode.

    to be continued, in the transcripts…

  4. I consider the “His Dark Materials” to be Dystopian Fiction, by Philip Pullman.
    Maybe not in the strictest sense of the word, but it displays the controversial distortion of the Church, into a dictatorial regime. God is depicted as being usurped by the Angel Metatron, and the Universe is at war with itself.
    I personally enjoy the philosophical debate it brings – being a Catholic myself, it is important recognize the dangers power brings. Whilst typical Dystopian fiction displays a country or world falling apart, this series shows a corruption of Heaven itself.

    At least that’s my interpretation…

    Don’t let the controversy around it put you off, regardless of your own beliefs, or of Pullman’s belief, it is a good read, thought provoking, and philosophically challenging.

    Give it a go.

  5. Interesting, fun, and smart discussion, as usual. If I could add one thing, I would note that dystopias and post-apocalyptic settings may sometimes still be escapist: there are lots of people for whom the idea of “fighting against the government” or “fighting for survival and relying on yourself with no laws or society to protect you” are actually escapist fantasies. That may be an obvious point, but I think it’s important when understanding both the appeal of the genre and the salability of it: so teen YA dystopias may be places where kids can escape TO, in order to enjoy the fantasy of fighting against the adults.

  6. Great episode as usual!

    Coincidence or not, this interview came up this week in which Kim Stanley Robinson speaks of why utopias are better than dystopias:

    “Dystopias are all basically the same, and easy: oppression, resistance, conflict, blah blah. Like car crashes in thriller movies. But utopian novels are interesting (I know this is backwards to the common wisdom) because they force us to think about what we are, what we could become, and if we were to make a decent civilization, what would endanger it, or keep it from spreading, etc. One point I’ve been making all along is that even in a utopian situation, there will still be death and lost love, so there will be no shortage of tragedy in utopia. It will just be the necessary or unavoidable tragedies; which perhaps makes them even worse, or more tragic. They won’t be just brutal stupidities, in other words, but reality itself. This is what literature should explore.”

    That said, discuss ;)


    PS: As far as I know I prefer dystopias, but I was intrigued about KSR’s comment.

  7. Around 8:23 Brandon mentions how Utopias are boring and if we read one we will look for the dark under belly. If everything is going well we don’t have a story.

    I say dystopias are the opposite. Everything has gone wrong and we expect it to continue to go wrong. In a story like this we look for the heroe and hope that things just might go right this once.

    You could say a utopian story brings out our bad sides as we search for the dark under belly. things can not be this good.

    Dystopias bring out our good sides. things can not be this bad.

  8. For a “funny dystopia” you should check out Jasper Fforde’s “Shades of Grey” (no, not “50 Shades of Grey”). It’s pretty steep for the first 50 pages, but well worth it.

  9. You should check out City of Reality, it’s a webcomic about a utopia that doesn’t have a dark underbelly, the interest and plot comes from how people from there interact with the outside world. It also pulled a thing with time travel that changed the archives… which was cool at the time but it means that if you weren’t reading at that time it doesn’t have the same impact anymore because you know it’s coming (also the archives currently have the altered timeline in them, if you want the original strips there’s a link at the beginning of the arc IIRC)

  10. Great ep! I like Brandon’s definition–something along the lines of society thought they had control, but then things went wrong. I can definitely see escapism in dystopian stories; everyone just seems to love them and love getting lost in their worlds.

    I don’t know, but I think maybe there’s something appealing to a dystopian world in because we have no responsibilities there (or far less). Although the world is in bad shape, there’s no work, there’s no superficial cares, just the normal survival things. I definitely recommend Stephen King’s the Dark Tower. I loved that setting where the “world had moved on.”

  11. Thanks for pointing out City of Reality Spudd86! I’ve read the whole thing (just finished actually) the past few days and it’s a tremendously fun read.

    And Jon’s right about Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (when Dan mentioned funny dystopias, I immediately thought of it as well), it’s got a wonderful mixture of Douglas Adams’ absurdist humor and 1984 that works amazingly well (and like Brandon’s Warbreaker it has an interesting color based magic system).

  12. Lucas, I’m glad to see someone else has read Jasper Fforde’s “Shades of Grey” (and I hate that “50 Shades of Grey” made it necessary for me to now and forever refer to “Shades of Grey” as “Jasper Fforde’s ‘Shades of Grey'”). It was even better the 2nd and 3rd times I read it. I think it will have leveled off for the 4th read though.

  13. At the moment, I guess you could say I’m doing a dystopia. But the fact that its a dystopia isn’t really the point.

    For roughly the same reason people don’t read Neuromancer because it is a dystopia, they read it to learn about invasive technological progress.

    I never really understood writing a dystopia, just to do a dystopia.

  14. Ursula le Guin’s utopias, ‘The Dispossessed’ and ‘Always Coming Home,’ are a couple of my favorite books. I don’t buy the idea that utopias are boring.

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